Authors: Minka Kent
“Sounds great, Dr. Emberlin,” she says. “Take care.”
I end the call without so much as a goodbye and keep my hands on the wheel. He’s going to ask for my license and registration, but for the life of me, I can’t remember which name I registered this car under. Rookie mistake. Doesn’t help that my mind’s going a million miles an hour trying to wrap my damn head around whatever the hell it is Brienne’s trying to pull.
“Good afternoon, Officer,” I say, squinting his way.
His gaze lands on my scrubs, and I relax my shoulders. Any tension is going to be a red flag. These pricks are trained to pick up on the slightest of nuances.
“You rolled through that stop sign back there,” he says. “At Cherry and Cardinal.”
I give him a humble chortle and slap my hand across my forehead like I’m some well-meaning, nonthreatening doofus.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. “I was on the phone discussing a patient, and gosh, I must have been distracted. It’s no excuse, I know. You just wouldn’t believe the day I had . . .”
His lips form a hard, flat line, and his eyes scan the interior of my car, which is neat and clean.
I’m harmless, I bet he’s thinking. A waste of his time.
A call comes over his radio. From the sound of it, they need backup for a vehicle search two blocks over.
An endless moment passes before he finally pats the top of my roof and says, “Consider this a verbal warning, Doctor,” and returns to his squad car.
I wait for him to speed off before pulling back out into the street and heading home, and I make a mental note to double-check on that registration when I get there.
I don’t like how close that was, but at least it’s over.
That could’ve been much worse than a verbal warning.
Enid is watering flowers when I pull into the driveway, and she gives me a wave. Sam’s car is parked out front, and I kick myself for forgetting to tell her to park in the garage.
I slam the car door behind me and storm through the back door, immediately regretting the fact that I lost my cool when I spot Sam stirring a pot of something on the stove.
“Hey, baby,” she says, greeting me with the smile equivalent of a golden retriever’s wagging tail. Upon closer inspection, it appears to be Kraft mac and cheese—the first meal we ever shared—in the pot.
“Can I get you to park your car in the garage from now on? I don’t want any neighbors telling Eleanor I’m having people over all the time,” I say.
“Is it not okay that I’m here?” Worry lines cover her forehead.
“No, no. It’s fine. She knows. But you know how people are in neighborhoods like this. They like to make things up. Start rumors.”
She laughs. “It’s one car in the driveway. Not like you’re throwing parties or anything.”
“Sam. Please.” I remove my shoes and leave them at the door.
“The lady next door came up to me earlier,” Sam says, draining the noodles in a white colander over the sink as I grab a beer from the fridge.
My heart glugs to a hard stop.
“Really?” I pop the tab and take a drink. “What’d she want?”
She turns away, and I realize she’s still dressed from her day at the office.
Still dressed like Brienne.
It’s like she won’t let go of this phony life I’ve given her.
“She said, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize you were back already.’ And I told her no, she’s still out of state,” Sam says.
I exhale and wipe the dampness on my forehead with the back of my hand.
Enid was referring to Brienne.
Sam assumed she was referring to Eleanor.
This is too many close calls for one day.
“Did she ask what you were doing here?” I ask.
Sam stops tending to the pale pasta for a moment and pauses. “No. Actually, she didn’t. Someone walked by and she waved at them, and they started talking about someone down the street. I went inside. I didn’t want to stand there all awkward.”
“They’re throwing me a goodbye party,” she says, her back to me as she stirs in the powdered cheese. “At the office. Isn’t that sweet?”
“Going to grab the mail. When I get back, we’ll sit down, and you can tell me about it, okay?” I say to her before disappearing down the hall toward the front porch. When I come back, I rifle through the small stack until I find a letter with a return address that matches the logo on Brienne’s retirement account statements.
With a careful tear, I retrieve the check and feast my eyes on the $3,498,997.18 that stares back at me.
For now, they’re just numbers. Ink on paper. But tonight I’ll drive Sam’s Audi to the ATM on Folworth and make the deposit. Using Brienne’s account numbers and Social Security number, I was able to use her bank’s automated phone system to reset her PIN.
Before taking a seat at the kitchen table, I slip the check into my pocket, only to brush my hand against something hard and sharp.
Ah, yes. The ring. Almost forgot
I ran out to a pawnshop over lunch today to buy Brienne a wedding ring. On my way out the door this morning, I made sure to grab one of her rings from her jewelry box for size purposes. I can’t imagine showing up with an ill-fitting ring. Now’s not the time to get sloppy. I’ve come too far.
I was short on time and the pickings were less than impressive, but I settled on a white gold setting with a one-carat round stone, though at four hundred bucks, I’m 100 percent sure the diamond’s a fake. There
were other options—smaller stones that I’m sure were genuine, but the wife of a surgeon needs something a step past modest, especially since our Photoshopped wedding photos give the impression of quite the lavish affair.
Sam dishes our dinner onto plates, giving me twice the amount she gives herself.
Poor girl. I’ve never so much as given her a twenty-five-cent vending-machine ring.
That’ll be changing soon enough, though.
“So tell me about your party,” I say.
Sam prattles on, dropping names and mentioning a cake and some card her boss gave her, but I can’t help but tune her out, my mind wandering to the fact that Brienne suddenly (and impossibly) woke up as Kate.
Oh, my God.
I’ve got it.
I bet she’s been studying it and trying to see if she can pass herself off as “Kate” so she can come home . . . but why?
I thought she wanted to “get better.”
Regardless, it’s all right. I’m not worried. I’ve spent my whole life pivoting.
I’ve got this.
I want to go home.
I need to go home.
This doesn’t feel right.
I must have read Kate’s diary a hundred times already. I’ve participated in every therapy session, every group activity, taken on every assignment with vigor . . . and yet I feel no different. In fact, just the other day, I was thinking about my childhood—the memories so vivid and clear, they had to be real and they could only belong to me. The scent of my grandmother’s lilac perfume. My grandfather’s boisterous laugh. Photo-realistic snapshots in my mind’s eye of vacations to the Grand Canyon, Disneyland, the Black Hills, New York City . . .
And yet, according to Niall and the doctors, those memories are fictional.
They belong to someone else and not me.
Niall’s here for another Saturday morning session with Dr. Schneider, and I haven’t stopped toying with my wedding ring since Niall got here this morning. It’s simple and understated. Unremarkable if I’m being completely honest. A plain white gold band and a round diamond. I was hoping it might help jog my memory, but every time I look at it, I feel nothing.
Niall and Dr. Schneider are knee-deep in conversation, and my husband hasn’t stopped smiling since he got here this morning. In fact, the first thing he did when he saw me was hug me so tight I almost couldn’t breathe, and then there were tears in his eyes as he whispered,
“I can’t believe you’re back.”
He looks to the doctor, then me, sometimes nodding, sometimes adding his two cents, sometimes reaching over to pat his hand against my knee.
He keeps saying things like,
“This is great news”
“You have no idea how happy this makes me.”
His enthusiasm is contagious. In fact, he’s acting as if he would take me home right now if they’d give him the green light.
I wish they would.
“We’re hopeful that with a couple more weeks of treatment, Kate will be ready to be discharged,” Dr. Schneider says to finish the session.
“You hear that, Kate?” Niall asks, taking my hand again. “Two more weeks.”
“Yes.” I mirror his excitement. “I’m so ready. I just want things to be back to normal.”
Dr. Schneider walks us to the door. “If you’d like another two-hour pass, feel free to stop by the charge nurse on your way out. I’m sure the two of you have quite a bit of catching up to do.”
I wonder if he’s referring to the fact that they’re convinced Kate is back or if that’s a dig at Niall for being so MIA the last couple of weeks. I don’t hold it against him, though. I know how busy he is at the hospital, how demanding his schedule can be.
Part of me imagines he’s burying himself in his work as a way to bide the time until I come home again. Maybe it’s a distraction for him. In one of our group therapy sessions, we talked about all the ways our illnesses can affect our significant others and families.
The first few nights, I was admittedly upset at the fact that Niall wasn’t blowing up the phones wanting to check on me, but after that therapy session, I was able to find compassion in my heart, sympathy for him. I don’t imagine it’s a walk in the park being married to someone with a condition like this. He’s a saint for sticking by me, and he
deserves credit for that. Plenty of patients waxed on in great detail about being left by their partners when things got too hard.
But Niall has stood by me.
He takes my hand, and we make our way to the nurses’ station, where he signs me out. I realize now that Dr. Schneider never asked Niall why it took him so long to realize I was again living as Brienne and not Kate. Perhaps we’ll cover that next weekend? The entire session this morning was so focused on my “strides” and recovery plan that we didn’t get a chance to delve into that.
Or maybe I’ll just ask him myself.
“I passed a little café just outside town on my way in,” he says as we make our way to the car. “Thought we could get breakfast there. I know you didn’t love that last place we tried.”
I catch myself before responding.
If I’m Kate, then I wouldn’t remember the last place he took me.
“Oh, yeah?” I ask. “Where’d we go last time?”
“Sounds . . . quaint.”
“It wasn’t.” He unlocks his car, and it chirps twice. “Anyway, I’m excited to sit down and . . . catch up.”
Niall drives us just beyond the city limits, to a restaurant fashioned out of what appears to be an old farmhouse. The sign by the road deems it A
, and the parking lot indicates the place is somewhat popular on this Saturday morning.
We manage to get a table with not much more than a ten-minute wait, and Niall wastes no time ordering a carafe of coffee the instant we’re seated.
I page through the menu, mostly locally sourced options with symbols next to them stating whether they’re organic or vegan or heart healthy.
“So,” he says, his clear gaze locked on me as he squares his shoulders, “how are you feeling?”
The waitress returns with our coffee and two mugs. “Are we ready to order, or would we like another minute to look at the menu?”
“I’ll take the blueberry steel-cut oatmeal please,” I say, folding my menu.
Niall wrinkles his nose.
“What?” I ask.
oatmeal,” he says.
I almost ask if he’s sure, and then I catch myself. “I guess I’ve started liking it since I’ve been here. The kind they serve in the dining hall is actually pretty decent.”
He replies with a tight-lipped “Hm,” and I think he buys it.
The waitress’s pen pauses against her notepad, and she studies the two of us.
“Eggs over easy for me,” he says, staring at me while he’s speaking to her. “Wheat toast. Butter not margarine. And a seasonal fruit plate. Thank you.”
Silence settles between us, an awkward pause of sorts. Clinks and clatters from the kitchen and the tinkle of silverware on plastic plates fill the void. I glance out the window beside us and watch a cattle-hauling semi barrel down the road and disappear over the hill.
“So,” he says, “now that we’re alone . . .”
My heart ricochets for a moment. I have no idea where he’s going with this. Maybe he’s onto me. Maybe he’s going to call me out for faking. I wasn’t prepared for this.
“How are you
doing?” he asks.
I exhale, blanketed in relief that it’s nothing more than simple concern.
“This whole thing is . . . surreal.” I turn to my right, observing the parking lot, where a young mother attempts to wrangle her toddler boys as they climb out of her minivan and dart off in opposite directions.
“I’m sure it is.” He takes a sip of coffee, his voice gentle and calm. “I’m just glad you’re back, Kate. I just want you to be
I wring my hands in my lap, trying my hardest to fight the nerves that threaten to thwart my determination. I couldn’t have known about the oatmeal. That was pure chance. But if I keep slipping up, he’ll notice. He’ll figure out that I’m faking it.
“How are things back home?” I ask, changing the subject before I get myself caught up in my own lies.
His left brow twitches, and for a second, I wonder if my simple question insulted him. “Fine. Everything’s fine, Kate.”
The woman with the two small boys gets seated behind us, and one of the boys flips around in his booth and pokes Niall on the shoulder. He turns around and gives the boy a smile and a wave, and I realize now there’s only so much I’ll be able to fake around him.
I have no idea if Niall likes kids and wants them or if he simply tolerates them.